If you ask someone to name the best canyons they’ve heard of, chances are Itaimbezinho and Fortaleza canyons probably won’t make the list.
Outside of Brazil, and to a lesser extent Argentina, these canyons in the south-east of Brazil are almost unknown.
Information about them, especially in English, was lacking to say the least.
The Grand Canyon is probably the most famous canyon in the world, although even at 1800m and 450km it isn’t the deepest or the longest.
In South America alone there are two bigger in Peru; Colca canyon (3000m/70km) that marks many tourist itineraries, and its even bigger neighbour Cotahausi (3300m/100km).
While Itaimbezinho at 700m and Fortaleza at 900m pale in size, they make up for it in many other ways as we found out.
Indeed, one of the questions our guide asked us was how we thought it compared to its more famous counterparts.
Only Callum had visited the Grand Canyon, but he was left more impressed by our Brazilian experience.
Before we visited we didn’t know a lot about this area that is dotted with canyons, a Canyon City.
Sometimes all it takes is a photo for a place to catch your imagination, and that’s the way it was for us – we knew we wanted to go.
Where Is This Place?
The first thing we had to do was work out how to get to the canyons.
There are two towns that generally serve as a base for a visit to the canyons, the larger Praia Grande and the more charming Cambará do Sul.
The former has some advantages, it is bigger and served by more bus connections, and is closer to the entrance for the hike inside Itaimbezinho canyon.
We ended up choosing Cambará for its proximity to both canyons and better reputation as a place to visit.
To get to Cambará the choice was essentially hire a car from a larger city in the region, or take one of the infrequent buses.
We weren’t up for stumping up the cash for multiple days of car hire, so we took the bus from Porto Alegre, where we’d arrived after leaving Uruguay.
A 6am bus by Citral was the only option available to Cambará, Monday to Saturday, and bus tickets could be bought from the general counters or on the bus.
We caught this bus destined for Ouro Verde, which then required changing buses in São Francisco de Paula.
This change of bus just meant we had to wait for another bus to turn up about 15 minutes later, also apparently headed for Ouro Verde.
That turned out to be the easy part, as getting out after our stay was more challenging.
We had both sketchy information and a truck driver strike to contend with.
We managed to confirm there was a bus about 9:45am headed to the city of Criciuma, but the locals weren’t sure if it would run.
This was due to a combination of roadblocks and fuel shortages, either of which could have cut off the one option out of town.
The São Marco Express bus ended up arriving as scheduled, so we got through and then got a connection through to Florianopolis on the same day.
Cambará Do Sul
Our hostel in Cambará do Sul, Hostel Cape Town, had the friendliest and most welcoming owners we’ve come across in our trip so far.
They helped us organise our last minute arrangements to visit the canyons, and one of them even joined us as an interpreter on the first day.
We’d recommend it to anyone who gets to Cambará, cheap, homey and cheerful.
Once in town there were a few choices to get to the canyons; hire a taxi driver, work out the extremely infrequent bus schedule or join a tour through the handful of agencies in town.
All of the agencies are grouped together on the West end of the main road through town.
We didn’t end up shopping around as we chose convenience over the best price, but we were told at least one of them had an English speaking guide.
Being a tourist destination, albeit predominantly frequented by Brazilians, there were quite a few restaurants.
Serving craft beer and some surprisingly delicious burgers (don’t judge us!), Gourmet Hamburger in the middle of town was very good.
For some more traditional Brazilian food, Costaneira offered an extensive all you can eat buffet including some delicious meat.
There were plenty of other recommendations but we didn’t eat out more in order to keep to our backpacker budget.
One thing to note is that Cambará is a small town, there were two banks and neither worked for us to withdraw money.
Luckily we had enough cash to get by, and the tour agencies, accommodation, supermarkets and many restaurants all accepted card – Argentina you have a lot to learn from Brazil!
The name of Itaimbezinho canyon means “cut stone” in the native language of the area.
After a lot of attempts, I think we finally even know how to pronounce it (ee-tuhym-beh-zin-yo).
The start of the walking trails along the canyon walls are only 18 kilometres from Cambará do Sul, but it takes about 45 minutes as it is a pretty rough road.
The main Cotovelo trail which leads to the ‘elbow’ of the canyon is roughly 2-3 hours return, and is a very flat walk.
We initially walked through the forest rather uneventfully with barely a glimpse of the canyon we’d come to see.
Just near the end, we burst out into open space and could finally see the majesty of the canyon.
There were a number of viewpoints to give a different perspective on the lushly vegetated gorge, which plunges sharply from the surrounding heights.
We took our time at each, absorbing the natural beauty and admiring the contrast of the light as it appeared to form an almost physical barrier.
It really isn’t hard to see why people would have thought a supernatural power had carved the canyon from the countryside.
There was also a secondary trail Vértice departing from the visitor centre in the opposite direction to get a better view of the Andorinhas waterfall.
It was much shorter at about 1.4 km, and we completed it in less than an hour return including photos.
There is a final option to experience the canyon, which is to complete a tough day hike inside the canyon on the Rio do Boi trail.
The trail starts near Praia Grande, however agencies will offer it from Cambará if there are enough people, or you’re willing to pay enough.
It was quite cold while we were there so we didn’t fancy the idea of wading through rivers so we gave it a miss.
Originally it was Itaimbezinho that caught our imagination, however it is safe to say that Fortaleza was the canyon that impressed us the most.
The starting point is a little further away, with 23km of road to contend with from Cambará, but it was in a bit better condition.
We couldn’t get over the variety of viewpoints along the trail from the carpark.
On a clear day like the one we had, the visibility from the first lookout was over 30km, all the way to the Atlantic ocean.
That was just the start though as we were treated to double rainbows over the “Boyfriend’s Tie” waterfall.
The views into the canyon were already beginning to impress, and it just got better.
A couple of hundred metres further up the track lead to the highest mirador (viewpoint) point of the day.
Sheer drops on two sides, and plunging canyon walls greeted us.
We discovered during our 3 weeks in Brazil that states are a pretty big deal, everyone takes them quite seriously (almost like America!).
A fun/morbid fact we found out during our visit is that no one dies from falling in Rio Grande Do Sul state, because they all land in Santa Catarina.
The border between the two states is an imaginary 3m line from the top of the canyon.
With that lovely little idea sitting in our head we watched our newspaper photographer companion hang over the edge for that ‘perfect’ pic.
Asides from the main mirador path, there were others to follow to explore different views of the canyon.
After the stunning views from the top, it was hard to be as amazed, but they still offered a different perspective on the engrossing canyon.
A hike to the highest point in the area could also apparently be completed, but despite appearing quite close the challenging terrain dictated leaving from a different starting point.
Bye Bye Canyon City
There are numerous other canyons to explore in the area that we just didn’t have the time for.
What surprised us was how much there was to do, we wish we could have stayed for longer.
Being able to see the two highlights of the area though made it more than worth it for us.
What really stood out were the sheer canyon walls that dropped at your feet, and the greenery that covered everything and made it feel alive.
Given enough time the secret will get out to the international traveller community, it’s too good not to.
Maybe one day it will form part of the well worn Gringo trail through South America, linking Uruguay to the lovely beach city of Florianopolis.